Whitley: Tebow had impactful athletic career

David Whitley
Gator Sports

When Tim Tebow announced his retirement from baseball Wednesday, he put out a typically Tebow statement.

He thanked everyone who supported him. He thanked the Mets, and even called them "a great organization."

And being Tebow, he didn't say the one thing a lot of us would have. So allow me to do it for him.

"Nyah-nyah. All you jokers who said I'd be the second coming of Eddie Gaedel can kiss my cleats."

Tim Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, announced Wednesday night that he is retiring from baseball. The outfielder made it to Triple-A in the New York Mets organization, but never the majors.

Gaedel was the 3-foot-7 man who got one at-bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. It was the best publicity stunt in baseball history, and Tebow's mere presence triggered flashbacks among the sport's self-appointed guardians.

“Mets money grab, slightly more dignified but far less charming than the Eddie Gaedel stunt," ESPN.com decreed 2018.

“His presence here is a farce, and he looks like an impostor pretending to have talent he does not possess,” an ESPN’s baseball insider noted when Tebow first showed up at Arizona Fall League.

“Scouts — given no choice but to evaluate this out-of-place media member — have been turning in scathing reports about Tebow’s long swing, poor fielding, and bad pitch recognition," Fox Sports reported.

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No doubt, Tebow had a long swing, poor fielding and bad pitch recognition. But what did they expect from a 29-year-old who hadn't swung a bat since his junior year at Nease High School?

You're probably aware of what came after that. Tebow won national championships and the Heisman. He led the Denver Broncos on a wild ride to the playoffs.

He built a hospital in the Philippines. He started a foundation that's helped hundreds of thousands of disabled people. He irritated hundreds of thousands more by being so darned virtuous.

It's sad when kneeling for a quick prayer after a touchdown makes somebody a polarizing figure, but that's the world we live in. If you loved to hate Tebow, his decision to become a baseball player looked like the happiest day of your sporting life.

Tebow did swing like a drunken lumberjack at first. But through hard work, relentless optimism and maybe a little divine intervention, he became a legitimate baseball player.

He hit .273 with six home runs and 36 RBIs in Double-A. That's a lot better than Michael Jordan managed.

Critics still groused that the Mets were wasting a roster spot just to sell tickets, as if Tebow's presence had kept the next Mike Trout from getting a shot at the majors.

All it did was make baseball cool again in a lot of small cities. Baseball America estimated Tebow brought in an extra 2,500 fans on average in the Sally League in 2017.

Every team had a Tebow promotion. Charleston would usually flash pictures of players on the outfield scoreboard when they came to bat.

When Tebow's Columbia teammates batted, the pictures appeared with a "Not Tim Tebow" graphic. Behind it was a picture of Tebow crying during Florida's 2009 SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama.

As always, Tebow took it in stride. Along the way, he signed thousands of autographs, stayed in dozens of crummy motels and seemed to relish every minute of it.

FILE - In this May 16, 2019 file photo, Syracuse Mets' Tim Tebow speaks with reporters prior to a minor league baseball game in Syracuse, N.Y.  Tebow has been invited to big league spring training by the New York Mets, taking one of 75 spots after Major League Baseball limited spring roster sizes as a coronavirus precaution.   (AP Photo/John Kekis, File)

He struggled in Triple-A in 2019, hitting four homers and batting .163. Then the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season.

The Mets invited him to spring training last week, and Tebow seemed set to go. That made Wednesday's announcement something of a surprise.

 A happy one for members of the Tebow peanut gallery.

"Upon Tim Tebow’s retirement from baseball, I think it’s a good time to remember that if you can’t (bleeping) hit not even Jesus can help you," tweeted the popular site Super 70s Sports.

Critics will cling to the idea Tebow was a baseball failure. What they’ve never understood was Tebow doesn’t measure success by their standards.

It wasn't about making the majors or bashing home runs. It was about devoting himself to a dream.

 "It’s having to not live with regret because I didn’t try," he once explained.

Thus ends one of the most impactful athletic careers we'll ever see — maybe.

New York Mets' Tim Tebow warms up before playing the Boston Red Sox on Saturday at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.

There's the inevitable chatter that Tebow and Urban Meyer will get the band back together again in Jacksonville. That seems unlikely with Trevor Lawrence around, but maybe Tebow could become a gadget QB or a coach or a team ambassador or the mayor or governor or eventually King of the World.

There’s no telling what Tebow’s next act will be. All we know right now is for an Eddie Gaedel, he stood mighty tall.

He leaves baseball with 18 homers, 107 RBIs, legions of grateful fans and absolutely no regrets.

We should all be such failures.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com.

Whitley